Tuesday, June 10, 2008


By detaining Binayak Sen for months, is the State sending out an ominous signal to those who work for human rights? asks Rajashri दासगुप्ता

It is a ploy undertaken by the State, time and again, to browbeat dissent and distract attention from its own misdeeds. Since May 14 last year, Binayak Sen, a pediatrician who has quietly dedicated his life to the service of some of India’s most impoverished communities, especially indigenous tribes and mine-workers, has been languishing in Raipur Central Jail in Chattisgarh under trumped-up charges. For his devoting more than three decades of selfless service to the rural poor, the State has charged the 58-year-old doctor with sedition and conspiracy to wage war, for being a “dangerous Naxalite” and for helping the Maoist movement — charges that could fetch him life imprisonment.

Although the State seems to find Binayak Sen so dangerous as to keep him in solitary confinement, denying him bail and basic amenities, the rest of the world does not. Ironically, even a year ago, only a few knew about his exceptional work, but in trying to stifle his spirit, the State has made him famous, and turned him into a hero. After his imprisonment, Sen has won the 2008 Jonathan Mann Award for Global Health and Human Rights, becoming the first South Asian to receive this prestigious award. The appeal by 22 Nobel laureates to the prime minister to allow Sen to travel to Washington to collect the award on May 29 left the State unmoved.

Who is Binayak Sen, who poses such a threat to the might of the Indian State?

He happens to be an outstanding student and distinguished alumnus of the Christian Medical College, Vellore, and the recipient of numerous awards, such as the Paul Harrison Award in 2004 and the Keithan gold medal in 2007. He had a world of options before him. But he belongs to that breed of medical professionals who believe in using their training to make their societies better places to live in. Their sincere involvement in people’s lives helps them to understand and appreciate the deeper connections between the absence of fundamental human rights and basic healthcare facilities.

His wife, Ilina, herself a brilliant scholar, is an old school friend. When I met her after a long time (though our paths had crossed several times in between because of our involvement with the women’s movement) the couple had already chosen their calling — to make healthcare available to those ignored by the government. Sen had left his teaching job at the Centre for Social Medicine and Community Health at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi to work with rural communities ravaged by tuberculosis. How could I imagine that this towering yet soft-spoken doctor with a gentle smile behind his flowing beard, who listened quietly to our passionate arguments on women’s issues, would one day be called a “dangerous man”?

The couple were perpetually busy, either with setting up the unique Shaheed Hospital in Dalli Rajhara in Madhya Pradesh with the help of mine-workers (where Sen earned Rs 600 a month), running rural clinics, or training village health workers. In recent years, they had shifted to Raipur, where they assisted the Chattisgarh government in developing relevant models of primary healthcare and the innovative Mitanin programme for village health workers. Slowly but steadily, the rural infant mortality rate in Chhattisgarh fell to 65 per 1,000 live births in 2005, from 85 in 2002.

In the last few years, Sen became a thorn in the flesh of the state administration in Chattisgarh when he linked the ill-health of the local people to the government’s faulty development policies. Till then, in the eyes of the administration, he was the “Doctor sahib”; now he is a ‘‘dangerous activist’’, because he chose to ground his medical intervention in socio-political reality. When we last met in 2006, he was visibly agitated about the bizarre war-like situation in the Chattisgarh region. The adivasis were targeted victims of an aggressive corporate takeover of land for major mining projects, leading to mass-scale displacement and increasing malnutrition in the region, with thousands of children dying of diarrhoea and measles.

In 2005, the state government, in order to counter the increasing popularity of the Maoists in the Bastar-Dantewada region, had sponsored and armed the controversial Salwa Judum, a vigilante movement in southern Chhattisgarh. In the process, tribals were forcibly uprooted from their land and thrown into miserable camps. Civil rights organizations had the difficult task of investigating how camps were mainly set up in local schools and primary health centres. This meant the shutting down of the only available healthcare or education services in the already impoverished regions. Salwa Judum action burnt down villages and attacked adivasis as Naxalite supporters when they refused to abandon their homes and leave their land uncultivated.

Sen became an ardent critic of Salwa Judum, which had displaced more than one lakh tribals. As general secretary of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, Chattisgarh, he exposed, through his investigative reports, the unholy nexus between the state government and mining giants. It is believed that his arrest came in the wake of his statements regarding the ‘encounter’ killings of adivasis in Santoshpur in Chattisgarh on March 31, 2007. While the state government claims that the killings were executed by Naxalites dressed up as police, the PUCL findings implicate the police and Salwa Judum men.

It is incredible that while the Supreme Court, the Planning Commission, the tribal affairs and panchayati raj ministries have all questioned the Salwa Judum and asked for the withdrawal of Central government support for it, Sen is still having to pay a stiff price for speaking out against it. Moreover, the charges against him of providing the imprisoned Maoist leader, Narayan Sanyal, with legal and medical help are more than suspect. As an office-bearer of the PUCL, Sen met prisoners, if at all, with the full knowledge and permission of the deputy superintendent of police.

Sen joins the league of human rights activists who are filling up Indian jails. These include journalist and civil rights activist Lachit Bordoloi in Assam, journalist Praful Jha in Chhattisgarh, Govindan Kutty, the editor of the monthly journal, People’s March, in Kerala, and fellow-journalist Prashant Rahi in Uttarakhand. These arrests also raise uncomfortable questions about the misuse of anti-terrorist legislations — such as the Chattisgarh Public Security Act 2005 and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act 1967 — against human rights activists to suppress voices of dissent.

The systematic efforts to paint Sen as a dangerous Naxalite is a deliberate and vengeful act of the State to harass and intimidate him and send a signal to those working for human rights. There is a serious need to address the arbitrary manner in which the State quickly moves against, labels and condemns those involved in seeking social justice and truth as “Naxalites”. By this yardstick, several intellectuals, editors, celebrities, and even former members of the Supreme Court should find themselves behind bars. It cannot be mere coincidence that many in this country seem to share the Maoists’ views and concerns about the socio-economic situation of rural communities. Many of us support local people’s movements even if we do not condone violence as a means to achieving change. Is Sen’s detention an ominous example set by the State to bring its critics to heel? It is time the State woke up to the fact that in suppressing the voices of truth, it is also stifling the freedom and rights of people who are so crucial to the functioning of an effective democracy.

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